The World's Last Great Wilderness

Co-author Mike Walker, Project Director Antarctic Ocean Alliance

For many of us Antarctic is out of sight and out of mind. We know even less about the waters surrounding it, the wild Southern Ocean. Our ignorance may aid its conservation, as what goes unseen goes, relatively, unharmed. However, this might also means we have not noticed the repeated failure of decision-makers to honour their commitment to protect this unique wilderness.

Exactly 25 years ago on October 4, 1991, countries signed the Madrid Protocol to protect Antarctica's environment. The agreement is widely regarded as one of the most successful examples of diplomacy in modern history and has ensured that Antarctica remains "a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science". And while the Protocol applies to the waters surrounding the continent it does not apply to fishing activities. Furthermore, before any marine protected area can be created in the Southern Ocean under the terms of the Protocol, it must secure the approval of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, or CCAMLR. Of course, most of the CCAMLR members are parties to the Protocol. In parallel, for the past ten years CCAMLR members have been discussing the adoption of Marine Protected Areas, MPAs, in the Southern Ocean. And still marine protection is not as strong as it should be.

So the prize is to motivate these countries, parties to the Madrid Protocol and members of CCAMLR, to overcome their split personalities and realise protection of the Southern Ocean through the designation of MPAs, and resist the pressure to expand fishing activities. In essence, why protect the frozen land if not also the surrounding ocean upon which so many creatures rely e.g. Adélie penguins and orcas? New Zealand and the United States have proposed to do exactly that by designating a large MPA in the Ross Sea, one of several proposals.

The Ross Sea is a 3.6 million square kilometre block of ocean off the coast of Antarctica. It teems with life including krill, a unique species of orca, Weddell seals and penguins. Krill is a shrimp-like invertebrate that acts as a linchpin for the entire Antarctic ecosystem. This marine richness, coupled with the Ross Sea's near pristine state, makes it a virtual living laboratory. It provides important reference points for scientists working to predict how climate change will affect ecosystems around the world. However, the Ross Sea and Southern Ocean are under pressure from fishing operators seeking valuable toothfish and krill.

Like Antarctica, the process which will decide the fate of the Southern Ocean is unknown. A decision to protect the Ross Sea will be made behind closed doors in the course of two weeks of negotiations by diplomats from 25 CCAMLR members (24 countries, and the EU) beginning on October 17 in Hobart, Tasmania. Of these 25 members, only one - Russia - opposed designation of a Ross Sea marine protected area in 2015. So the country whose explorer, Fabian von Bellinghausen discovered Antarctica, and which was instrumental in the development of the Antarctic Treaty, now has the opportunity to make a historic move in the protection of the Southern Ocean. We cannot all influence Russia, but we can pressure other governments to make every effort with to safeguard Antarctica's waters.

The 25th anniversary of the Madrid Protocol is a timely reminder that world leaders can again show courage in protecting Antarctica and its Southern Ocean. It might be far away but we have a responsibility to hold our leaders to account for the decisions made in Hobart.

Send your message of support to world leaders now.